New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: 2021 Week 18 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (8-8) at Atlanta Falcons (7-9)

The Falcons don’t have a terrible record at 7-9, but all of their wins have come by one score or fewer against teams with a record of .500 or worse, while their losses have come by an average of 18.78 points per game, giving them a -136 point differential that ranks 6th worst in the NFL. In terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, the Falcons rank 21st, 25th, and 25th on offense, defense, and special teams respectively and 28th in schedule adjusted mixed efficiency, even worse than their point differential suggests.

The Saints only have one more win than the Falcons, but their 15th ranked schedule adjusted mixed efficiency and their +19 point differential suggests they have been the much better team this season and that is despite the fact that they have been as affected by absences as much as arguably any team in the league. They still remain without top wide receiver Michael Thomas, who has missed the whole season, starting quarterback Jameis Winston, who went down for the season week 8, starting left guard Andrus Peat, who went down for the season week 7, and talented left tackle Terron Armstead, who has played in just eight games this season, but they are also as healthy as they have been in a while. 

Their defense will have the dominant defensive line trio of David Onyemata, Marcus Davenport, and Cameron Jordan together for just the seventh time this season and the previous two games were games missed by stud linebacker Demario Davis and stud safety Marcus Williams respectively, who have both since returned. Meanwhile, their offense got wide receiver Deonte Harris, who leads the team in receiving yards per game, back from a 3-game absence last week, a few weeks after getting feature back Alvin Kamara back from a 4-game absence, while talented offensive linemen Ryan Ramczyk and Erik McCoy are expected to return after missing 7 games and 5 games respectively this season.

As healthy as they have been in weeks, I have the Saints 3 points above average in my roster rankings, while the frequently blown out Falcons are 4.5 points below average, giving us a calculated line of New Orleans -6. That suggests we are getting significant line value with the Saints as 3.5-point favorites and that they may be bettable at that number, though I want to make sure Ramczyk is actually returning before locking this one in. If he does not play, I would need this line to drop to three.

New Orleans Saints 23 Atlanta Falcons 17

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3.5

Confidence: Low

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints: 2021 Week 17 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (5-10) at New Orleans Saints (7-8)

At first glance, these two teams seem similar, with both having poor offenses and strong defenses. However, there are some differences. For one, the Saints are slightly better on both sides of the ball, ranking 27th in schedule adjusted offensive efficiency and 2nd in schedule adjusted defensive efficiency, while the Panthers rank 31st and 3rd respectively. The Saints also have the edge on special teams (12th vs. 23rd) and rank about three points higher than the Panthers in mixed efficiency (15th vs. 23rd). 

The Saints are also going in the right direction in terms of personnel absences, while the Panthers are heading the other direction. The Saints are still missing a lot on offense, with original starting quarterback Jameis Winston, expected top wide receiver Michael Thomas, stud right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, and starting left guard Andrus Peat all still out and starting center Erik McCoy joining them, but they will get back their two backup quarterbacks Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian, whose absence last week forced 4th string quarterback Ian Book into a near impossible situation last week, and they will also get back leading receiver Deonte Harris and likely left tackle Terron Armstead. 

The Saints also were without feature back Alvin Kamara for a stretch earlier this season and he has since returned so, in general, the Saints are relatively healthier on offense than they have been in recent weeks, while the same is true of their defense. They’ll be without safety Marcus Williams this week, which is a big absence, but they’ll get back fellow starting safety Malcolm Jenkins and stud linebacker Demario Davis and are healthier than they have been on the defensive line, in just the sixth game in which their dominant trio of defensive linemen, Cameron Jordan, David Onyemata, and Marcus Davenport, have played at the same time, with one of those being last week when Davis and Jenkins were out.

The Panthers, meanwhile, have been horrendous on offense since losing feature back Christian McCaffrey and talented center Matt Paradis, while their defense is starting to lose talented players as well. Already without cornerback Jaycee Horn for an extended period of time, the Panthers have since lost fellow starting cornerbacks Donte Jackson and AJ Bouye, while Horn’s replacement, Stephon Gilmore, is now out as well, a bigger absence than any of them. Gilmore is also likely to be accompanied on the sidelines this week by edge defender Haason Reddick, a huge loss for their pass rush.

The Panthers started 3-0, but injuries have been a big part of the reason why they have gone 2-10 since and I would expect that to continue this week, in arguably the worst shape they have been in all season. This line favors the Saints by 6.5, but my roster rankings have the Saints with a 7.5-point edge, making them 9.5-point home favorites, giving us good line value with them. I don’t want to lock this in until I know for sure the status of Terron Armstead and Haason Reddick, but it seems as if the former is playing and the latter is not and, even if that’s not true, the Saints are the pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Update: I still don’t know about Armstead, but Reddick is not playing, which is enough for me to make a small bet on the Saints, before this line potentially moves.

New Orleans Saints 20 Carolina Panthers 10

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -6.5

Confidence: Medium

Miami Dolphins at New Orleans Saints: 2021 Week 16 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (7-7) at New Orleans Saints (7-7)

The Dolphins have won six straight games after their 1-7 start to surprisingly climb back into the playoff race in the AFC, but they have faced a pretty easy schedule over that stretch and have not been impressive in many of the wins. Of the six wins, five of them came against teams that are a combined 18-52 right now, while their only victory over a team with a record better than 5-9 came against the Ravens, who were in a near impossible spot playing on a short week after an overtime game, a spot in which teams have covered just 3 out of 28 times historically. 

Despite the weak schedule in recent weeks, the Dolphins still have a negative point differential at -27 and, in terms of schedule adjusted efficiency, they have been even worse as, not only have they faced a relatively easy schedule overall, but they have significantly overperformed expectations on third downs on offense, ranking 11th in third down conversion rate, but just 30th in both first down rate and in schedule adjusted offensive efficiency. Over-performing on third downs tends not to be sustainable long-term and, while the Dolphins do rank 17th in schedule adjusted efficiency on defense, their poor offensive rank drags their overall mixed efficiency down to 28th in the NFL.

Fortunately for the Dolphins, they get another break in the schedule this week. The Saints are 7-7 and are the best team record wise the Dolphins have faced since their Thursday Night Football game against the Ravens back in week 10, but the Saints are dealing with significant absences, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. The Saints pulled the upset in Tampa Bay as 11-point underdogs last week, but they primarily won because they won the turnover battle by two, which is not predictive week-to-week, and they lost both the first down rate and yards per play battle, which are more predictive week-to-week. Teams tend to struggle anyway after big upset wins like that, covering at just a 41.4% rate after a win as double digit underdogs, as teams tend to be flat after such a big win.

It also took a truly dominant performance from their defense, which held the Buccaneers to 4.14 yards per play and a 22.93% first down rate, to mask a very poor performance by their skeleton-crew offense, which averaged 3.53 yards per play and a 18.03% first down rate. In total, the Saints’ offense was without their original starting quarterback in Jameis Winston, a trio of expected started offensive linemen in Terron Armstead, Ryan Ramcyzk, and Andrus Peat, with Armstead and Ramcyzk being arguably the best offensive tackle duo in the NFL, their expected #1 wide receiver Michael Thomas and his replacement Deonte Harris, who leads the team in receiving and is an asset in the return game as well. 

There was some hope that the Saints might get some of those players back this week, most notably their offensive tackle duo, but, not only are none of those players expected to return, the Saints will now be down to fourth string quarterback Ian Book, with backup quarterbacks Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian both being added to the COVID protocols this week and expected to miss this game. Book was deemed worthy of a fourth round pick by the Saints in this past year’s draft, but is very raw and the Saints have not seemed eager to get him into action as a rookie, despite a need at the quarterback position, so he should be a downgrade even from the poor quarterback play the Saints have gotten since Jameis Winston went down.

When the Saints’ defense is healthy, they are arguably the best in the league and they showed that last week, in just the fifth game all season in which the Saints had their dominant trio of defensive linemen (David Onyemata, Cameron Jordan, and Marcus Davenport) available at the same time, but defensive performance tends to be less predictive week-to-week than offensive performance and, even with those three aforementioned defensive linemen expected to play, the Saints defense is no longer at full strength, as they are expected to be without stud every down linebacker Demario Davis due to COVID protocols. 

We are still getting line value with the Saints, whose defense should still play at a high level even without Davis, but that line value is only because the Dolphins are an overrated team and I am not confident enough in the Saints to bet on them against the spread, especially since they could be in a bad spot after a huge win last week. The money line is worth a small play at +120, as the Saints should be considered no worse than 50/50 to win this game at home (my calculated line is New Orleans -1.5), but I would need at least a full field goal to consider betting on the Saints against the spread.

Update: This line has jumped to three today, probably because the public is realizing that Terron Armstead is unlikely to play, as the “limited” practice he got in yesterday was an estimation, with the Saints not actually practicing on Christmas, meaning Armstead still has not practiced in two weeks. I factored in that Armstead would be out yesterday when I did this write up, so that doesn’t change anything for me, but I like the value at +3 a lot more, enough to bet the Saints.

New Orleans Saints 17 Miami Dolphins 16 Upset Pick +135

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +3

Confidence: Medium

New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2021 Week 15 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (6-7) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-3)

The Saints have arguably been the most affected team in the league by injuries. Not only have they had a high volume of players miss time, but many of those players have been in and out of the lineup, making them very inconsistent week-to-week. The Saints’ offense bounced back from a rough prior stretch last week, in the return of feature back Alvin Kamara and stud left tackle Terron Armstead, but that also came against a Jets team with arguably the worst defense in the league and Armstead will be back on the sidelines this week

Armstead will be joining fellow talented tackle Ryan Ramcyzk on the sidelines, meaning the Saints will be down three starting offensive linemen total again, including left guard Andrus Peat, who got hurt earlier this year. Even though they will have Kamara this time around, missing those three offensive linemen has proven to be a very difficult situation for this offense this year. Along with Peat, the Saints have also been without top wide receiver Michael Thomas and starting quarterback Jameis Winston for an extended period of time and, as of last week, they are also without talented wide receiver Deonte Harris due to a suspension, leaving an offense that already ranks just 23rd in schedule adjusted efficiency in pretty rough shape.

On the other hand, however, their defense might be as complete as it’s been all season, as they have dealt with numerous absences, most notably on the defensive line. They still are not 100% on the defensive line, but the players they are missing are rotational/role players and with defensive end Cameron Jordan returning from a one-game COVID absence, the Saints will have their talented trio of David Onyemata, Cameron Jordan, and Marcus Davenport together for just the 5th game this season. Despite their injuries, the Saints still rank 4th in schedule adjusted defensive efficiency and, with the aforementioned trio together again and the talent they have behind them as well, it’s arguable this defense is the best in the league.

Given that, I think they are a little undervalued as 11-point road underdogs in Tampa Bay, despite their offensive issues. The Buccaneers are arguably the best team in the league, even without their top cornerback Jamel Dean, who will miss this game due to injury, but I still only have them calculated as 9.5-point favorites over a Saints team that is more competent than they are being given credit for. There isn’t enough here for the Saints to be worth betting, but I like them for pick ‘em purposes.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 28 New Orleans Saints 19

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +11

Confidence: Low

New Orleans Saints at New York Jets: 2021 Week 14 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (5-7) at New York Jets (3-9)

The Saints got off to a 5-2 start, but injuries and other absences have completely derailed their season. Already without top wide receiver Michael Thomas from the start of the year, the Saints have been without starting quarterback Jameis Winston, top offensive lineman Ryan Ramcyzk, first round pick edge defender Payton Turner, and starting tight end Adam Trautman for an extended period of time. They will get feature back Alvin Kamara, talented left tackle Terron Armstead, and starting edge defender Marcus Davenport back this week, but they will also be without suspended wide receiver Deonte Harris, a talented offensive and special teams player, and likely edge defender Cameron Jordan, who is in the COVID protocols and would be an enormous absence for this defense.

Despite their injury situation and their current 5-game losing streak, sinking their record to 5-7, the Saints are still 5.5-point road favorites in New York against the Jets. The Jets are one of the worst teams in the league, but, in their current state, the Saints don’t deserve to be favored by this many points on the road against anyone outside of maybe the Texans. My calculated line has the Saints favored by a field goal at most, so we’re getting enough line value with the Jets at +5.5 for them to be worth betting, especially since they are also in a significantly better spot.

The Jets lost last week at home to the Eagles as home underdogs, a 15-point loss, and teams cover at a 59.0% rate all-time as home underdogs the week following a loss as home underdogs by 14 points or more. The Jets should be much more focused for their second straight home game after a big loss last week. On the other hand, the Saints play the Buccaneers next week and could overlook the Jets or take their foot off in the second half even if they can get a big lead. Road favorites of 4.5 points or more cover at just a 43.8% rate all-time before facing an opponent with a winning percentage over 50% higher than their current opponent. This is a smaller play for now, but if Cameron Jordan is officially ruled out, I would consider increasing this bet, especially if the line moves up to 6 at some point.

New Orleans Saints 19 New York Jets 17

Pick against the spread: NY Jets +5.5

Confidence: Medium

Dallas Cowboys at New Orleans Saints: 2021 Week 13 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (7-4) at New Orleans Saints (5-6)

Both of these two teams lost on Thanksgiving a week prior to this matchup and in both cases injuries were a big part of the reason why. The Cowboys were without their two best wide receivers Ceedee Lamb and Amari Cooper, as well as their two best pure edge defenders DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, while talented left tackle Tyron Smith did not seem 100% in his first game back from a short absence. The Saints, meanwhile, were missing even more, as they’ve been one of the most injury plagued teams in the league this season.

Already without top wide receiver Michael Thomas for the whole season, the Saints have since seen quarterback Jameis Winston, running backs Alvin Kamala and Mark Ingram, stud offensive tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead, guard Andrus Peat, and edge defender Marcus Davenport suffer injuries that have kept them out for varying amounts of time, with only Ramczyk playing from that group last week. 

At least one of these teams figures to be a lot healthier this week and that team is the Dallas Cowboys. Both Cooper and Lamb are expected back and, while Randy Gregory is still at least a week away, the Cowboys should get DeMarcus Lawrence back for the first time since week one. On top of that, Tyron Smith is likely to be healthier this week than a week ago, having had another week to get better. With key players like Michael Gallup and La’El Collins also having returned from extended absences recently, the Cowboys are arguably as healthy right now as they’ve been since the beginning of the year.

On the other hand, while the Saints will get Mark Ingram back, he is the only player the Saints are guaranteed to get back this week and even Ramczyk, who played last week, is highly questionable. Neither Ramczyk nor Armstead practiced in the Saints’ final practice of the week and both are likely on the wrong side of questionable, while Kamara is also not a guarantee to return after getting limited practices in all week. All of the rest of the aforementioned injured Saints will be out at least another week and, if Ramczyk sits out, the Saints could be in even worse injury shape than they were a good ago.

With three key players like Kamara, Armstead, and Ramczyk all legitimately questionable, it’s impossible to confidently pick either side in this matchup and which side I end up going with will depend largely on who of those three end up being available. If all three play, the Saints have a good chance to keep it close or even pull an upset. The Saints are switching quarterbacks from Trevor Siemian to Taysom Hill, which should be an upgrade by default, as Hill can at least be a threat with his legs. 

If the Saints offensive linemen and top running back are available, they can utilize a run heavy, ball control offensive game plan, which, when combined with their talented defense, could allow them to pull the upset or at least keep this close. The Saints are also in a good spot in their second straight game as home underdogs, as teams tend to be much better in their second game after being uncompetitive in the first game, with teams covering at a 59.0% rate all-time as home underdogs after a loss by 14+ points as home underdogs the previous week. On top of that, the Saints could benefit from the Cowboys being without several coaches in the COVID protocol, although we’ve seen that have minimal if any impact in the past in many cases.

On the other hand, if the Saints don’t get their running back and offensive tackles back, it’s hard to see them having enough to be competitive with a suddenly healthy Cowboys team that has one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. Since it’s looking like Armstead and Ramczyk are both on the right side of questionable, I am making Dallas my pick for now, but it’s a no confidence pick until I know who is actually playing. I will almost definitely have an update before gametime. 

Update: Kamara, Ramczyk, and Armstead are all out for the Saints, while the Cowboys are healthy as expected, but we won’t be able to take advantage of the Cowboys’ significant health edge, with this line moving up to -6.5. My calculated line has the Cowboys favored by a touchdown, but when you factor in that the Saints are in a better spot, there really isn’t anything to be confident about the Cowboys with this week. I’m still taking them for pick ’em purposes because I think the most likely outcome is they win by a touchdown, but this is one of my lowest confidence picks of the week.

Dallas Cowboys 24 New Orleans Saints 17

Pick against the spread: Dallas -6.5

Confidence: None

Buffalo Bills at New Orleans Saints: 2021 Week 12 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (6-4) at New Orleans Saints (5-5)

The Saints are 5-5, but they aren’t anywhere near as good as their record in their current injury situation, arguably the worst in the league. Already without their top wide receiver Michael Thomas for the whole season, the Saints’ offense lost starting quarterback Jameis Winston for the season a few weeks ago and will also be without feature back Alvin Kamara, stud right tackle Ryan Ramcyzk, and possibly talented left tackle Armstead. Armstead could return from a two-game absence, after returning to limited practices this week, but the Saints’ defense will now be without talented edge defender Marcus Davenport, who missed four games earlier this season with a different injury and now is out again.

Unfortunately, we aren’t getting the same line value betting against the Saints as we have been in recent weeks, as this line has shifted from favoring the Bills by 4.5 on the early line last week to favoring the Bills by 6 this week, despite the Bills getting blown out in an upset loss to the Colts last week. The Saints were also blown out last week, but that was a less surprising result and, with both teams having disappointing weeks last week I would have expected this line to stay put. My calculated line is exactly where this line is, favoring the Bills by 6, and, without any obvious situational trends involved in this game, that makes this one a very tough call. I am still taking the Bills for pick ‘em purposes, but I don’t have any confidence in them and a push might be the most likely result.

Update: Despite Terron Armstead being active, this line has moved up to a full touchdown. The Saints won’t have running back Mark Ingram, a surprise inactive, but Armstead being confirmed as active is bigger injury news. This game still isn’t bettable, but I like the Saints at +7 more than I liked the Bills at -6.

Buffalo Bills 23 New Orleans Saints 17

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +7

Confidence: Low

New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles: 2021 Week 11 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (5-4) at Philadelphia Eagles (4-6)

I have thought the Eagles are underrated for several weeks and, despite their blowout win in Denver as 2.5-point underdogs last week, they remain underrated. They are just 4-6, but they have a +26 point differential that ranks 12th in the NFL, despite facing one of the toughest schedules in the league. All but one of the Eagles’ six losses have come to teams with a winning record, with the exception being a one-score loss to a 49ers team that has played significantly better than their record suggests. 

In schedule adjusted offensive, defensive, and special teams efficiency, the Eagles rank 6th, 16th, and 22nd respectively and are even better than that suggests on offense, as they have played at a much higher level in recent weeks since getting their two offensive tackles Jordan Mailata and Lane Johnson back from extended early season absences. The Eagles’ four easiest games of the season (Lions, Falcons, Broncos, and Panthers) have all been victories, including three in blowout fashion, and the Saints fit much more with those teams than the teams that have beaten the Eagles, at least in the form the Saints are currently in.

The Saints are 5-4, but they are extremely short-handed on offense. Already without their top wide receiver Michael Thomas for the whole season, the Saints lost quarterback Jameis Winston for the season two weeks ago and now are without dominant feature back Alvin Kamara and their two stud offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramcyzk, who have all gone down in the past week or so. The Saints are healthier on defense than they were earlier in the season and have one of the best units in the league on that side of the ball, but their offense will hold them back significantly until they get at least some of their key players back.

This line shifted from an even line on the early line last week to favoring the Eagles by 2.5 points at home this week, but that’s a pretty insignificant shift, given that about 9% of games are decided by 2 points or fewer. With all of the Saints’ injury problems and the Eagles’ blowout win last week, this line should have shifted more and it was already too low to begin with. As a result, we are getting great line value with the Eagles, who I have calculated as touchdown favorites. The Eagles are my top pick this week and they should cover fairly easily in a game in which they essentially just need to win to cover.

Philadelphia Eagles 24 New Orleans Saints 17

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia -2.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

New Orleans Saints at Tennessee Titans: 2021 Week 10 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (5-3) at Tennessee Titans (7-2)

The Titans won in their first game without Derrick Henry last week, an impressive upset victory in Los Angeles against the Rams, but there is still a lot of reason to be concerned, after this offense managed just 3.5 yards per play. The Titans won’t be able to get two pick sixes in the same game every week like they did against the Rams and it looks likely that their offense will be taking a big step back without Derrick Henry. Making matters even worse, they seem likely to be without talented wide receiver Julio Jones, who re-aggravated his hamstring injury in practice this week. However, somehow the Titans are only 3-point home favorites against the Saints, so it’s not as if they are overrated, at least not any more than the Saints are. 

The Saints are 5-3 and have one of the best defenses in the league, but their offense is in even worse shape than the Titans’ offense, as the Titans still at least have a solid quarterback and a legitimate #1 receiver. The Saints, meanwhile, are starting a backup quarterback in Trevor Siemian, with a receiving corps that is one of the least experienced in the league, without expected #1 receiver Michael Thomas, stud left tackle Terron Armstead, and now they are without talented feature back Alvin Kamara, which is almost as big of a loss as Henry. My calculated line has Tennessee favored by 5, so we’re getting line value with Tennessee -3, though not quite enough to bet this confidently.

Tennessee Titans 19 New Orleans Saints 14

Pick against the spread: Tennessee -3

Confidence: Low

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints: 2021 Week 8 NFL Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-1) at New Orleans Saints (4-2)

Typically, NFL teams gradually lose talent as the season goes on, with players getting hurt as the season goes on. The Saints haven’t followed that pattern though, as they entered the season missing several key players, lost a few more players along the way, but are now as complete as they’ve been all season, with several key players returning over the past two weeks. Last week, they got back a pair of defensive starters, edge defender Marcus Davenport linebacker Kwon Alexander, as well as left tackle Terron Armstead and center Erik McCoy, who are among the best players in the league at their respective positions. 

This week, they will get back interior defender David Onyemata, who is also an above average starter. They aren’t 100% healthy, but they are in much better shape than they’ve been in all season and, overall, I have them 3.5 points above average in my roster rankings in their current form. The Saints typically get better as the season goes on anyway, as they have covered at a 59.5% rate in week 6 or later since 2011.

The Saints didn’t play particularly well last week, even after getting back the players they did, barely beating the Seahawks without Russell Wilson in Seattle, but the Saints could have been caught looking forward to this matchup against the Buccaneers, which is a big game in the division against the team who ended their season in the playoffs last year and a big revenge game for former Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, who now starts for New Orleans. 

The Buccaneers are one of the top teams in the league, but they are even in the point differential on the road this season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see them struggle to pull away from a Saints team that is above average in their own right, led by one of the most talented defenses in the league. My calculated line has the Buccaneers as field goal favorites at best, so we’re getting good value with the Saints at +4.5, even before we take into account that they might have the extra motivation in this matchup. I wouldn’t make a big bet on the Saints, but they should be the right side.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 26 New Orleans Saints 24

Pick against the spread: New Orleans +4.5

Confidence: Medium